- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 15, 2003

The World Health Organization yesterday recommended guidelines for dealing with blood transfusions in order to protect blood supplies from becoming infected with the flulike illness SARS, which has spread around the world.

The WHO said these guidelines for screening potential donors are necessary even though the risk of SARS infection through a transfusion is simply theoretical and there have been no SARS cases caused by a blood transfusion so far.

“It’s a precaution,” said WHO spokesman Ian Simpson.

“In a case where you don’t understand the true risk, you must take maximum measures,” explained Dr. David L. Heymann, director of the WHO’s communicable diseases section. “So guidance with maximum measures is that you don’t take blood from people who are in any kind of a convalescent period for this disease.”

The United States and Canada already have implemented similar SARS screening guidelines for blood donors.

Meanwhile, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported yesterday there was only one new probable case of SARS in the United States for the first 15 days of May, compared with more than 30 cases in the first 15 days of April. Julie L. Gerberding, director of the CDC, said this is “suggestive that the system is working the way we intended it to” and the illness is being contained here.

“That’s good news and it allows us to be cautiously optimistic,” she said, adding however, that “it only takes one case” to spark an outbreak.

Currently there are 64 probable SARS cases in the United States, and all but two are related to overseas travel, she said.

The WHO guidelines for blood donations — which are posted on the organization’s Web site — advise that people who have had close contact with SARS patients or who have been to areas affected by the illness should delay donating blood for at least three weeks, even if they aren’t displaying SARS symptoms.

People suspected of having SARS should delay donating their blood until one month after they have fully recovered, and those with probable cases of SARS should delay donation until three months after they have fully recovered.

It is also recommended that authorities should follow up with blood donors for one month after they donate to determine whether they are sick, and blood products should be recalled if donors develop SARS symptoms. The guidelines apply to donations of organs, tissues and cells for transplantation as well.

Mr. Simpson said these precautions are better than testing blood for SARS.

“Testing the blood for SARS would be more complicated and it’s better to just not take any blood from anyone who has a chance of having SARS,” he said.

Dr. Heymann also noted that the tests being used to detect SARS in the bloodstream “are not yet sensitive enough to be used as a screening test.”

The Food and Drug Administration issued very similar screening guidelines for blood donations in the United States in late April, after consulting with the CDC. The new WHO guidelines are being reviewed.

The WHO yesterday also criticized what it called “irrational behavior” of excluding visitors from China or other SARS-affected areas from large gatherings. Among other things, some schools have been worried about relatives visiting from Asia during graduation season.

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